Friday, August 26, 2011

Eleanor Brown writes about academic life with a Shakespearean cast.

Any reader might recognize the title “weird sisters” as the three mysterious witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Elizabeth Brown uses it to describe three sisters, all with Shakespearean names, who find they can hardly outlive the force of paternal desire for them.

The Weird Sisters

Eleanor Brown’s astonishing debut novel, The Weird Sisters (336 pages; Putnam; $24.95) concerns three sisters with the names Rosalind, Bianca, and Cordelia. Literary types will recognize these as the heroines of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, and King Lear respectively.

Rose, the oldest, is also the most organized and the most obvious achiever. With a doctorate in mathematics, when the story opens, she has come back to their Midwestern town to teach math in the same college where her father is the beloved Shakespeare scholar in the English Department.

She likes living with her parents for the time being. Her own fiancé, a chemistry professor whom she met when on a gig at the huge state university nearby, is spending the term in England; and she is fully persuaded that her parents need her housekeeping and nursing skills, if only to keep them from tripping over books lying in the hallways or from forgetting to take any of their several pills.

While she is there, her mother has some serious medical complications; and either because of her ill health or for other reasons of their own, the other sisters return home at the same time. Bean (Bianca’s nickname) is fleeing something of a near-felonious disaster at the firm where she was working. A clothes horse and fashion maven, she could not make do on her considerable New York salary, so she was tapping into funds to which she had no right, and she was lucky that her boss only fired her and sent her home without pressing charges. She is responsible for paying back what she embezzled, however, and that is one of her chief worries when she returns home.

Cordelia, on the other hand, seems just to have swept in from living in some commune or other or on the road with groups of young people who live on fast food and drugs of various kinds. Everyone in the family is happy to see her alive, but when she starts eating like there is no tomorrow, they become worried. She needs to gain weight, but this is ridiculous. Very gradually we come to realize that she is pregnant. Her issue—what has brought her home—is her struggle with the decision whether or not to have the baby.

So this assortment of struggles and concerns, played against the father’s posturing and the mother’s ill-health, makes for a fascinating family analysis. The sisters act as a collective narrator, a “we” that comments on each of the sister’s behavior as both typical and (at times) alarming.

In the course of their time together, the sisters relive a great deal of their childhood antics; but they also, for various reasons, each try to grow and change; and the big question that the novel poses is whether such changes, of the purpose of career, companion, or even priorities in taste or opinion can be changed?

The novel would like to posit that they can, and the novelist makes a great case in her presentation of these three sisters. You have to read the novel, though, to decide whether or not you agree with her.

Eleanor Brown

The Weird Sisters
is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Barbara Freethy writes about family secrets in the northwest.

Every once in a while, I like to read a novel like this one. Sometimes romances surprise with a plot or some characters that I want to pay attention to.

Summer Secrets

Barbara Freethy is well-known as a writer of romance novels. Summer Secrets (400 pages, Onyx-New America Library, $14) was published some time ago, but it has just appeared for the Kindle. It came with the kind of fanfare that intrigued me.

It has some of the hallmarks of the romance genre. The women, in this case a family of twenty-something sisters, are all stunningly beautiful. These sisters turn out to be athletic as well—they sailed around the world with their father, and with him they came in first in a race that for some reason haunts them all even eight years later. The father, a compulsive competitor who also has a drinking problem, is a concern to all the daughters, but each of them has a love interest too, one more handsome and rugged looking than the next. Sex scenes are fantasies of complementarity, and even if some of these women resist their suitors, the reader knows that those muscular arms will be holding one of the women in fulfillment of all her dreams.

Well, it’s summer, and fantasies like this are no worse than the gay fantasies of Josh Lanyon’s novels, to be sure. In Kate, the oldest of the sisters, and the one who seems to be harboring the secrets, Freethy has an interesting heroine. Kate is struggling to keep the family together. She comes close enough to failing that the novel generates interest simply on the level of the plot, and that is not always easy.

Tyler has come to town—the novel is set on one of the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington—to discover which of the sisters is the mother of the child his brother has adopted. He has clear evidence that one of the sisters gave birth while on the sailing race, and he is determined to find out which one.

As he deceives the sisters and attempts to work himself into their good graces, he finds he is falling in love with Kate. Kate finds this muscular reporter attractive, but she is afraid that he is after their secrets, so she tries, unsuccessfully, to keep him at a distance.

All three girls have a complicated relation with their father and with the history of sailing with him all those years ago. Two of them are attracted to the water and imagine sailing again, and one, just as powerfully, wants nothing to do with the water ever again. When it turns out that the dad is hoping to get them out and racing once again, each daughter reacts in a different way.
In the end of course, all the secrets are revealed and the conflicted couples come together almost seamlessly. Even the father stops drinking for a while. But if the ending isn’t fully believable, some of the energy that went into telling the story surely is.

This novel will not be to everybody’s taste, but it can certainly suffice for a few distracted hours at the beach or at poolside.

Barbara Freethy

Summer Secrets is available at Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Ann Packer’s stories are novelistic in their probing depth.

I loved Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, and I was persuaded by a friend to try her stories. They are wonderful.

Swim Back to Me

Each of the stories in Swim Back to Me (225 pages, Knopf, $24.95) has a power all its own. Together they tell a lot about the exigencies of family life and the terror of living in intimate relation to other people.

Some of the characters in these stories reappear. In an almost magical coupling, in an early story we see a young family who has moved from Yale to Stanford, after the father was denied tenure at Yale, all hopeful that this new location will bring greater rewards. The struggling professor is seen as a spectacular father, perhaps a little too overbearing at times, but wonderful in more ways than his neighbor, a tenured History professor. The History professor's son Richard goes to school with Sasha, the English professor’s daughter. Richard loves Sasha's father and feels that his own father is withdrawn and distant, working all the time; and they both—father and son—regret the departure of the wife and mother, who simply couldn’t take the academic life—or non-life—anymore.

In the first story we witness a kind of coming of age of Sasha and Richard. There is an intensity between them, but Sasha gets caught up in another crowd, and Richard has to watch from the sidelines. As he does, Sasha’s parents, the ebullient English professor and his thoughtful wife, pull him into their orbit, partly in hopes of prying loose some secrets. But they never do. Richard and Sasha experiment with marijuana, necking, and even a little more; while her parents are none the wiser.

Some of these characters return in a later story, older but not terribly wiser, and it is fascinating to see what Packer has done with them. With a few deft strokes, she makes us understand implicitly what these lives have been like. It’s uncanny, almost spooky, and it reminds me of the some of the best stories in the long American tradition of the short story.

Between these masterpieces are other stunningly moving stories. In one, a woman’s husband doesn’t return home one night. This is her older, wiser, dependable second husband, and at first she is frantic. But then she learns, from his children and his ex-wife, that he does this all the time. He takes a powder for a considerable time and talks about having to get his head together. Needless to say, this is not happy news to the woman who has been married to him for a year, and her process of working out a response to this behavior is what makes the story wonderful.

In another story, a young couple approach the birth of their first child together when they know that the wife has lost an earlier child in an earlier marriage to sudden crib death. Packer takes this simple premise and weaves a powerfully moving story that makes readers think of the powerful feelings associated with childbirth.

There are several other stories too, all as good as these few, and I think anyone who likes reading novels will enjoy the craft with which Ann Packer has constructed these stories.

Ann Packer

Swim Back To Me is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Ruth Rendell creates a deeply disturbing mystery in suburban London.

I have not read many of Ruth Rendell’s probing mysteries, but this one sounded irresistible. It has made great summer reading!

Tigerlily’s Orchids

Set in the northern London suburb—or outer urban area—of Kenilworth, Tigerlily’s Orchidss (272 pages, Scribner, $26) first and foremost offers a staggering social commentary on the place and the people living there. The story centers on a block of flats—an apartment building in American parlance—where there are six apartments and six very strange stories. In addition to the six sets of tenants, there is a couple in a care-taking flat below the ground floor, and there are folks living in a couple of buildings across the street, two of which are single family homes. At the corner is a shop run by a Pakistani, and not too far away, there is a Tesco, the parent company of our “Fresh and Easy.”

Rendell may be writing a murder mystery, but no one is murdered until two-thirds of the way through. That results in a funny version of who-done-it: that question now shifts to who will be the murder victim.

There are several characters among which to choose. The drunk Olwen, the divorcee living in one of the top flats, wanders on unsteady feet back and forth to Mr. Ali’s shop whenever her supply of gin or vodka—she hardly cares which—runs out, in hopes of being allowed, finally, to drink herself to death.

The caretaker’s wife has an eagle eye and she loves gossip, with the result that none of Olwen’s bottles are lost on her. But she might look closer to home: her pasty and overweight husband spends his time gazing at child pornography when he isn’t leering at schoolchildren from a nearby graveyard.

There are also three young university girls—Naar, Sophie, and Molly—who are doing anything but their schoolwork, at least as far as we can tell. They have trouble understanding anything about their seniors around the building, but that doesn’t stop them getting deeply involved in their affairs.

Across the street, the middle-aged widower Duncan watches all this activity avidly, but he never really understands what he sees. Still he can take pleasure in the warmth of his house—all three floors of it—which his powerful central heating and superb insulation have made toasty all through the winter.

Next to Duncan there is a mysterious house of strangers. No one knows the family of Asians who lives there, and no one, Duncan especially, understands their relation to one another or what they are doing there. Duncan posits a complicated set of relations, but he singles out the gorgeous younger girl as Tigerlily. He thinks it suits her eastern inscrutability.

Stuart Font, the dashing young buck who lives in Flat #1, is also taken with the young Asian. He is having an affair with the seductive Claudia, a married woman, who seems to take the lead on their meetings and insists on his attachment to her. As that affair becomes more complicated, Stuart would like to extricate himself. He is slightly put off by Claudia, and he has lost interest in her once he encountered Tigerlily in a local shop. And besides, Claudia’s thuggish lawyer husband has gotten wind of her affair with Stuart, and he wants to teach them both a lesson.

Phew! There are even more characters then this, and Rendell interweaves their lives in astonishing ways. In a sense, it hardly matters who is killed because the social commentary is so rich and wonderful.

But of course it does matter, and this side of things is handled as impeccably as you might expect from someone of Ruth Rendell’s stunning record.

Ruth Rendell

Tigerlily's Orchids is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Richard Liebmann-Smith mixes Jameses to make a great story.

A friend recommended this novel or I might not otherwise have picked it up. The premise is so bizarre that it needs an encouraging word to be taken seriously.

The James Boys

In The James Boys (261 pages, Random House, $25) Richard Liebmann-Smith reimagines William and Henry James’s younger brothers Wilky and Rob, both of whom fought in the Civil War, as Jesse and Frank James, the notorious outlaws. This gives Liebmann-Smith one family in which to run the gamut of nineteenth-century American masculinity, from the hyper-intellectual philosopher William and refined novelist Henry to the handsome, sexually aggressive and contemptuous Jesse James, and, according to Liebmann-Smith at least, his better read and more introverted brother Frank.

Given this premise, the novel proceeds from incident to incident with aplomb. Early in the action, the younger James brothers hold-up a train in which Henry is returning from an ill-conceived attempt to do a little journalism for American friends. On this trip, he meets the precocious Elena Hite, the daughter of a Harvard businessman, who has taken to the road to espouse the woman’s cause.

Just as Elena has started to embarrass the fastidious Henry with her directness of speech, Jesses James comes in to demand their money, but the recognition scene between the “bothers” leads the outlaws to drag the novelist and his companion off the train and onto their hideout.

While Henry and Elena pose as husband and wife, for the sake of the couple who run this retreat, Elena in fact becomes involved with Jesse, and Henry is scandalized when he sees them fooling around together behind the barn. Henry’s ailments, which threaten to get the best of him even in good times, flare up to the point that he is barely sociable.

While Henry struggles in the wild west, William is busy trying to set up the first psychology laboratory at Harvard. He has friends in high places, and he is sanguine of success; but at the same time he is trying to decide whether he should marry the woman he has been seeing. As he talks himself in and out of marriage, Henry and Elena appear in Cambridge after a botched bank robbery, and she finds him attractive as well.

In the course of telling this story, Liebmann-Smith weaves fact and fiction so seamlessly that a reader has no recourse but to give into it entirely. What he surely hopes—that the two sides of this narrative will illuminate each other in imaginative ways—is surely what happens here. But still some readers will want to go and read more about the outlaws; and others will want to reacquaint himself or herself with the details of the intellectual Jameses once again. Both results speak to the effectiveness of the novel, for only a deeply engaging novel could get readers to think about what “really happened” in this way.

I recommend this novel for anyone interested in nineteenth-century American culture. Once you open it, it is hard to put it down.

The James Boys is available at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.